Wednesday, June 28, 2006

So, the Soccer...

Some time has passed, and it is now time for me to return to the topic of Australia's departure from the Copa Mundial 2006. Thanks to everyone who left a comment, and bonus thanks to Gracie for keeping things in perspective.

I'm going to preface my comments with the following: I am not as upset as you think I am. Maybe it's because I thought all along that Australia would find it difficult to progress to the Qaurterfinals. Maybe it is because I recognise that soccer is a game of inches and big moments, and some times it isn't your day. Most likely it is because I know we had our chances, and didn't take them. In a lot of ways we only have ourselves to blame.

Australia had been punching out of its weight-class for a while, and Italy was merely the next heavyweight opponent. By this stage, however, the underdog had started to believe in himself, and after taking the game to the Brazilian juyggernaut, facing another soccer super-power was old hat.

The game itself started out eerily similar to the Australia/Brazil match, the entire first half reminding me constantly of the previous contest. Australia seemed to be dominating possession, but without managing many real chances. Italy, on the other hand, had Luca Toni running riot and showing up our shorter, slower backline. Australia very easily could have been behind at the half, except the big Italian striker could not find the back of the net.

At halftime there were reasons for optimism, for as long as we could hold the Italians from breaking us down there were opportunities for success at the other end. But just like the Brazil match the course of the game would be altered only minutes into the second half. This time, however, it was in Australia's favour.

Which brings me to the refereeing. Setting aside the final climactic decision for a moment, let's look at the two sides and their reputations. Australia are known as a fit, physical side who have caused other nations to complain about our hard-nosed play (naturally those other nations are pansies). Italy are know as a team which "accentuates fouls", or as we like to say "will take more dives than Greg Louganis". This presents a bit of a quandry for a referee. You know the Australians are going to play physically, but you know the Italians are going to flop all over the place. That makes it a difficult game to call.

The refereeing was indeed a bit all over the place. What I found strange was that he quite often let physical challenges go (which even I, as an Australian supporter, thought deserved an Italian free kick), while occasionally awarding free kicks to Italy after ridiculous dives. I mean like "take two steps after contact, then fall over" kind of diving. The inconsistency was maddening.

Which brings me to the dramatic events in the 51st minute, when an Italian clattered into an Australian, and instead of issuing a yellow card the referee reached a little deeper and proferred the red.

Naturally, I was overjoyed. But was the sending off warranted? Hardly.

Nonetheless, with essentially 40+ minutes of time left in the game, Australia had been given a gift. Initially they were, in my opinion, correct in playing carefully. As the USA discovered against Italy, once a red card comes out you have to be careful not to be too overzealous with the man advantage, as another red can come out pretty quick-like.

So Australia's ploy of carefully attempting to craft a goal was OK. Initially. But as time inched along, we needed to go fore the jugular. Playing in a 4-5-1 (four defenders, 5 midfielders, and one solitary attacker) was not enough. All it would take for things to be undone was one Italian counter-attack, or one physical challenge to let the referee send an Aussie off, and it would all go to hell.

Eventually, finally, Guus Hiddink (who I find it very difficult to criticise, even given this late move and the zany goalie change in the Croatia match) brought in Aloisi, another attacker. But he did it in the 80th minute, seemingly too late. I thought it should have happened at least ten minutes earlier. As soon as Aloisi stepped on the pitch the Aussie attack was put into high gear, and quality chances started appearing in bunches.

But, as often happens in soccer (including to the Italians in the first half), we could not put one away. And as full-time approached, the prospect of another half hour of play (albeit one with a man advantage) looked certain. I know it was in my mind, and it definitely looked like it was in the Australian side's. Which is how Fabio Gross managed to step his way into the penalty box, let Lucas Neill go to ground, and make the most of the opportunity by flopping like a gutted fish with ten seconds to go.

Should it have been a penalty? No. Was I surprised it was called? Again, no. Why not?

First of all, the penalty box shenanigans are unfortunately a part of soccer. Going to ground in the box is something that happens a lot. Once in a while a referee decides that it's good enough, and a penalty is given.

As mentioned before, I truly believe that the concept of the "square up" is alive and well in soccer, especially International soccer. As I mentioned, if you are lucky enough to have an opponent have a man sent off, you better be extra careful because a referee will not hesitate to send one of your men off as well.

Australia has been playing with a man advantage for 40 minutes. In those 40 minutes they did not appear to be going hell-for-leather, they also did not score. This inability to cash in allowed the Italians to steal a goal. Which they did, gleefully. With ten fucking seconds to go.

Would an Australian have done the same? Most probably. And if an Aussie hadn't taken the opportunity to taste grass with a good chance of a penalty being given, and Australia had gone on to lose, there would be all sorts of commentary about how Australia wasn't "sophisticated" enough to grasp the opportunity.

Unfortunately this is part and parcel of soccer as it is currently officiated. Do I wish referees were harsher on diving? You better fucking believe it. But, like it or not, the referee has an enormous amount of power in soccer, and currently calling dives does not seem to be a priority, no matter what FIFA claims.

In my mind the biggest shame of it all is that Australia's amazing achievment in making it into the second round, and almost making it to the Quarterfinals, is in danger of being forgotten. Prior to the tournament Australia would have been ranked at best third in their group, and was probably listed as fourth-best by the vast majority of experts. Believe it or not I actually picked the group's results correctly, as on ESPN's "pick 'em" contest I pegged Australia to beat Japan, lose to Brazil, and draw with Croatia. That was how I hoped it would play out, how I hoped we would get through to face the big dogs in the second round.

Looking back on the Cup we have so much to take from it. The fight back against Croatia, when it looked like a strange decision at goalkeeper would eliminate us, was fantastic. The battle with Brazil was epic, and it was unfortunate that we didn't take away points. But if nothing else, I have those last amazing 7 minutes against Japan to keep forever.

But what about the future? I hope that finally busting back into the World Cup after a 30 year hiatus has done its job in continuing the soccer revival back home. I hope that this can only serve as a boost to development in our country as we look forward to trying to battle back into the World Cup in four years time.

And from now on, there is no way any nation, from Brazil to Argentina to France to, yes, Italy, will look past Australia again.


  • Great post're right, we'll never be underestimated again. They key will be to take what Guus has built and ensure that they team stays strong.

    The physical game is the only one which will be successful for us - as a nation we're bigger, stronger and more rugby/AFL trained, so it puts us in the perfect position to play the type of football we do.

    Having said all of that nice balanced stuff - congrats to the Socceroos for a great tourney and..
    fuck that spanish ref.

    By Blogger Jules, at 6:50 AM  

  • Thanks for making out last night, you went out in fine fashion with The Mook !

    I am in for the team thing tonight as long as the stakes aren't too high.

    By Blogger mookie99, at 11:16 AM  

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